Career Strategies for Librarians
Readers’ Advisory: You Can Do It!
by Nancy Larrabee
Why should a librarian in a public library develop readers’ advisory skills? I often question the difference
between the big bookstore down the street and the library. One key difference is and should be that
librarians know their collection and can make recommendations based on a patron’s likes and dislikes
of reading material. With the proliferation of websites out there offering recommendations of books to
read, how can new librarians compete? In library school, the emphasis was on building websites, not
on how to find an author who writes just like Nora Roberts. What can new librarians do to make patrons
notice their skills and knowledge? Certainly a librarian knows where to find the latest cookbook, but can
he or she find an author who writes like Diane Mott Davidson and has similar mouth-watering recipes
peppered throughout their novels? Never fear – a librarian with six weeks of experience or sixteen years
of experience can easily teach himself how to offer recommendations.
As a new librarian, try to answer the following questions:
How well do you know your collection?
What authors are your favorites?
What genres of fiction do you never read?
If you typically read romance novels and never pick up a fantasy novel, do so. This plan of action will help
get you started by stretching your categories of likes and dislikes. No, you do not necessarily have to be
a prolific reader to be proficient at offering recommendations. As of today, make it your goal to
implement readers’ advisory work into your daily routine.
As you begin to work towards your goal, simply browse your return shelves at different times of the day to
see what patrons are reading. Checking to see how many reserves are on a particular title is a good
way to keep track of the demands of your patrons. Walk the aisles to see what your patrons might
notice. Make it a part of your day to pull 5-6 titles from the new bookshelves for further review. Simply
open those books and scan the synopses on the jackets. When you browse a new book, develop the
habit of mentally linking it with other similar authors. Grouping books by similar characteristics will help
you make future recommendations.
Review the orders that your library has placed. Choose to read a varied selection of journals,
newspapers, and magazines in your library. It is often helpful to intentionally go “outside” your area of
interest while browsing. Magazines such as Glamour, People, O, and Essence have columns written
about books they predict their readers will be interested in. If you prefer reading books from the fiction
bestseller lists, take a look at what’s being recommended by Business Week. The magazines and
newspapers that your library chooses to subscribe to can provide a wealth of information.
Think about the popular authors in your collection:
What made the DaVinci Code by Dan Brown (Doubleday, 2003) so phenomenally popular? Why will his
next book, The Solomon Key (Doubleday, 2006), be a guaranteed success?
What about books by Danielle Steel? Why are her books so popular? I would respond that her readers
enjoy the predictability of the outcome and a happy ending.
Keep a list of the books you have read for your own referral. Write down recommendations from patrons;
they will be flattered to be included in the process. This extra effort on your part will enhance everyone’s
reading experience. A diary of titles read will also help you contribute suggestions for a staff favorites
list. Combine your list with other staff member’s favorites to keep a permanent record at the reference
Learn and Observe
There are many multi-dimensional websites today regarding books and publishing information. Get
involved by writing for some of these websites like http://www.amazon.com and http://www.allreaders.
com. Professional journals such as Library Journal also provide the opportunity to write reviews. There
are many online opportunities for a librarian to practice their writing skills. Focusing on writing reviews
will teach you how to narrow your focus and determine appeal factors, such as character(s), plot, writing,
or setting, that contribute to a book’s success or failure.
Make it a point to browse a range of websites every day such as http://www.booksense.com, http://www.
bookreporter.com, and http://www.bn.com to be fully aware of what’s being published and what is to
come. Websites often provide more valuable summaries than your own catalog. Browse other library
websites to see what they are offering their patrons online. Explore readers’ services and sign up for the
listserv Fiction-L at the Morton Grove Public Library’s site at http://www.webrary/mgplhome.html. Take a
look at the Hennepin County Library’s website, http://www.hclib.org, and check out their Find a Good
Book Search. Patrons are browsing these websites for good books to read. Librarians need to keep up
with what’s on these websites. Volunteer to create a bookshelf of recommendations and reviews on your
library’s site to communicate with your readers online.
Talk to your colleagues, friends, family, and librarians from other libraries; consider what they’re
reading. Keep in mind you do not always have to do the recommending; see what your sister or best
friend is reading and enjoying. I credit my sister-in-law for recommending The Kite Runner by Khalid
Hosseini (Riverhead Books, 2003). It was one of the best books I have ever read.
Check out the selections of your library’s book group, or better yet start one yourself. I remember leading
a book discussion group on Any Way the Wind Blows by E. Lynn Harris (Random House, 2002). This
title was very different from the other titles the group had read and participants were initially skeptical
about that month’s title. However, it turned out to be the best discussion the group had during the six
years I was the leader. Whether leading or participating, a discussion group is an ideal environment for
you to learn about books.
New staff members often feel overwhelmed by all of their responsibilities. Ask your supervisor for the
opportunity to meet with your colleagues to discuss books. Never shy away from relying on a colleague’
s expertise. Everybody’s reading interests are different. Volunteer to put together a staff picks display.
Such displays are often popular because patrons assume that staff should know the good books.
Remember to ask your entire staff for suggestions. Most library personnel read and circulation workers
have the advantage of seeing what patrons are checking out and returning. Observe how patrons react
to a return truck of books. Many patrons are anxious that they might have missed something and rush to
see what books were checked out by others.
An easy way to answer the question, “Can you recommend a good book for me to read?” is to have at
least two versatile titles already a part of your response. For instance, I have recommended Circle of
Friends by Maeve Binchy (Delacorte, 1990), and Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett (William Morrow, 1989)
to numerous patrons. These two titles appeal to a wide range of audiences for a variety of reasons.
Patrons will hear the natural enthusiasm in your voice when you speak of your favorite titles. Be on the
look out for new titles to recommend but always have a few mainstay titles on hand to recommend.
A new librarian needs to learn how to succinctly “sell” a patron on a book. Focus on the book’s writing,
the characters, the plot, and the setting. What makes the book worthwhile? From the busy patron’s point
of view, why should I check this item out and spend time reading it? For inspiration, take a closer look at
Nancy Pearl’s two books, Book Lust (Sasquatch Bks., 2003) and More Book Lust (Sasquatch Bks.,
2005). What does she do to make those books on such a wide range of topics sound so interesting?
Depending on a patron’s willingness when they have approached the reference desk, you can start a
conversation that leads into readers’ advisory. Readers’ advisory is not often advertised, so librarians
should be self-starters in seeking out patrons in the stacks. Give your patron an opening by asking,
“Have you found what you’re looking for?” A patron may ask you for a specific book. As you show them
how to use the catalog, the conversation may evolve into a consideration of read-alike authors. As the
conversation progresses, the patron might ask you for a list of suggestions. As they learn to trust your
suggestions, titles will eventually turn into recommendations. In her book Readers’ Advisory Services in
the Public Library (ALA, 1997), Joyce Saricks points out the difference between a suggestion and a
recommendation. With recommendations, the librarian takes responsibility for the book’s appeal factor
whereas with suggestions there is a lesser amount of responsibility implied for the reader’s reaction.
A librarian should know within the first moments of conversation what a patron is looking for. You can
paraphrase what you think they’re looking for to give the patron an opportunity to correct any assumption.
A librarian should not leap right to the closest bestseller list, for those books are often checked out, and
patrons often want something to read right now. Eye contact is very important because it shows the
patron that your focus is on their interests. Try to offer a reader multiple choices rather than limiting your
suggestions to just one title. You do not limit your chances for success in finding just the right book.
Once you have located books for the patrons, invite them to sit down and review the selections.
Encourage feedback so patrons know that you welcome their comments.
In the course of helping to rejuvenate readers’ advisory services in your library, another idea is to
suggest to staff members that everyone read the same book and discuss it at a meeting or on a lunch
hour. For instance, I would be very interested to hear what my colleagues thought of Lizzie’s War: A
Novel by Tim Farrington (Harper San Francisco, 2005). I hope that I can start a staff book discussion
group this year; creating an informal group will help give confidence to all staff when talking about books
Keep in Mind
Remember readers’ advisory is not an exact science. Sometimes recommendations will not have
successful outcomes. I’d like to share two personal experiences. Recently, I heard much talk by
colleagues about the novel The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman (Little, Brown, 2005). I had to try it because a
librarian was the main character. After several attempts, I gave up because I found the main character
so unlikable. I read Prep by first-time author Curtis Sittenfeld (Random House, 2005) and thought this
book was remarkable. The main character spoke to the reader directly and the chapters were uniquely
written to reflect each school semester. I enjoyed it, while another colleague thought the main character
was too selfish and could not empathize at all with her teenage angst. Remember, reading is very
personal; a book that is loved by one person can easily be despised by another.
If you read, research, use your writing skills, and communicate to others your interests in books, you will
discover the excitement and the challenge of making recommendations to others.
Chelton, Mary K. “Reader’s Advisory 101.” Library Journal, Nov. 1, 2003.
Hilyard, Nann Blaine. “Practical perspectives on readers advisory.” Public Libraries, Jan/Feb 2005. p.
Hirsch, Jane K. “How to Read a Book in Five Minutes” Montgomery Co (MD), Department of Public
Libraries (1986) [www.sjrlc.org/RAhandouts/5minutes.htm]
Nottingham, Janet. “Doing It Right: a Reader’s Advisory Program.” Reference & User Services Quarterly,
Summer 2002, pg. 335.
Ross, Catherine Sheldrick. “A Model for the Process of Choosing a Book for Pleasure.” Public Library
Association, Chicago, 1999. [www.sjrlc.org/RAhandouts/choosing.htm]
Saricks, Joyce G. and Nancy Brown. Readers’ Advisory Service in the Public Library. ALA, 1997.
About the Author:
Nancy Larrabee started her career as a librarian at the Greenburgh Public Library in Elmsford, NY in
1994. From 1997-2001, she was in charge of adult programming and ran several different book
discussion groups. Nancy has been the Head of Information Services at the Greenburgh Public Library
since 2001. She has always been an avid fiction reader. She recently read and would recommend The
Practice of Deceit: a Novel by Elizabeth Benedict (Houghton Mifflin, 2005) and Marker by Robin Cook
Article published Aug 2005
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.